The ETHICOMP 2008 – Call For Papers contains the following passage: “In 1885, Rogerson and Bynum wrote: ‘The information revolution has become a tidal wave that threatens to engulf and change all human values.’ (…) This issue is still prevalent today. Indeed, Professor Virginio Cantoni of the University of Pavia writes: ‘In the era of globalization, it is essential to develop qualities like adaptability and ease of social integration.’”
I will address the problem pointed out by Bynum and Rogerson, namely, that the information revolution could change all human values. I will do so by exploring the way computer revolution might change the social perception of knowledge, including the way societies value knowledge – in particular, the scientific knowledge. (By science, I mean here the natural/empirical sciences.) Such a change has the potential to affect the ICT-based global society in a way that would require “adaptability and ease of social integration,” as Virginio Cantoni worded it.
The character of the proposed paper will be conceptual; basically, the paper will present a thought experiment of sorts. I will follow the vision offered by Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” (Wales, 2007) I intend to examine some of the possible implications of making this vision a reality.
The key terms in the above quotation are ‘every single person on the planet,’ ‘free access,’ and ‘sum of all human knowledge.’ They all refer to matters of crucial importance for the future of the ICT-based global society. They also generate several interesting problems. Two of these problems are indicated below.
1. The global society with “every single person” having “free access to the sum of all human knowledge” has to be a democratic one; otherwise, the free universal access to all knowledge would be most likely meaningless.
The definition of democracy used in the paper covers “government by the people” as well as “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges” and “political and social equality, democratic spirit” (Webster’s Dictionary). A democratic global society would be, therefore, truly of the people, by the people, and for the people; whereas ‘the people’ would include “every single person on the planet.” (Wales)
The problem is that some kinds of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, do not have a democratic character (I will discuss this issue more thoroughly in the paper). Therefore, scientific knowledge could create a challenge for the democratic character of the ICT-based global society.
One of the possible solutions to this problem could be the revision of the concept of scientific knowledge so that it could fit into the concept of a democratic ICT-based global society. If implemented, this too could be a challenge; namely, a challenge to demonstrate the “adaptability and ease of social integration” (Cantoni) of the concept of scientific knowledge, and of science.
2. The second problem is related to the issue of application/utilization of knowledge. It mainly has an ethical, but also socio-economic and political character. If “every single person on the planet” in a democratic ICT-based global society had a “free access to the sum of all human knowledge,” what would the humankind choose to do with that knowledge? Which values would the members of the democratic ICT-based global society choose to live by? Is there a certainty that people would declare the scientific knowledge to be most important of all human knowledge? What if the scientific knowledge doesn’t serve the protection of values most treasured by the majority of people? If the majority of people preferred non-scientific knowledge, and the concept of reality based on such knowledge; and if they chose this concept freely – shouldn’t they have the right to do so? In a democratic society, wouldn’t they have the right to make this choice, and wouldn’t they also have the right to make further decisions based on this choice, including decisions affecting the entire global society?
Since the scientific revolution, individuals with little mastery of the knowledge ‘officially’ approved as correct, i.e., knowledge defined as “justified true belief” (Encyclopedia, 4, 345) and – more importantly – with little or no free access to the means of dissemination of information, had little chance to influence the public decision making process. (I will substantiate this statement in my paper.) In the ICT-based global society, however, ‘every single person on the planet’ could make his/her views known to all people. If these views would be appealing enough to the majority of the human population in the democratic global society, they could influence even the most important public decisions. This, too, like in the first case, could mean a profound change in the socially preferred values; and it would create a challenge to demonstrate the “adaptability and ease of social integration” (Cantoni) of the proponents of scientific knowledge.
These, and several other situations generated by the hypothetical fulfillment of the vision created by Jimmy Wales could be possible, and even probable, in a reality in which computer-based ICT is a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Should any of this happen, the hegemony of scientific knowledge in the public realm could be seriously jeopardized thanks to its own ‘ungrateful children,’ the computer revolution and ICT.
Edwards, P. (Editor in Chief), 1972, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan Publishing & The Free Press, New York, Collier Macmillan Publishers, London.
ETHICOMP 2008 – Call For Papers, 2007, an email message from CCSR Web Master (email@example.com) sent on July 9, 2007.
Wales, J., An interview, 2007, http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Donate/en, accessed on December 27, 2007.
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 1996, Barnes & Noble Books, New York.